Relaxing visa requirements would unlock the benefits of air travel demand and have a positive economic impact around the world.

In 1963, at a United Nations Conference on International Travel and Tourism in Rome, 87 States agreed that “governments should extend to the maximum number of countries the practice of abolishing, through bilateral agreements or by unilateral decision, the requirement of entry visas for temporary visitors.”

The pace of change has been such, however, that over 50 years later IATA has deemed it necessary to call on governments to intensify efforts to spread the economic and social benefits of aviation by removing onerous barriers to the free movement of people across borders.

“Aviation needs borders that are open to people and trade,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “We must be a strong voice in the face of those with protectionist agendas. I would like to imagine a future for aviation where airlines are as free as possible to meet the demands for connectivity.”

Marked differences

It is argued that visas perform several important functions, most importantly security enhancement. They are also used to control immigration or limit the stay or activities of visitors, to generate revenue, and to act as a tool for reciprocity measures between countries.

But, says Gloria Guevara, President and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), “it is not always the case that visa systems improve safety and security, and technology can be used with a dual purpose of increasing security as well as facilitating travel.

“Onerous visa regulations increase the price of travel, as on top of the visa fees there is the cost of travel to visa application centers,” she continues. “Uncertainty around processing times and appeal systems can prevent people from planning ahead and/or taking trips at short notice. It can also discourage travel to destinations that have unfriendly visa processes.”

Global Trends in openness 1980 - 2018Too many visa regimes are still overly restrictive, expensive, and inefficient. According to the World Travel Organization (UNWTO) approximately two-thirds of the world population need to obtain a visa prior to international travel. 

There is a marked difference between emerging and mature economies, partly a result of the increasing protectionist rhetoric heard in those mature economies. When traveling to an emerging economy on average, 59% of the world’s population needs a traditional visa. When visiting a mature economy, however, 70% of the world population needs a traditional visa.  

Essentially, between 1980 and 2015, the general openness of advanced economies decreased while the general openness of emerging economies increased. Little wonder that there is stronger aviation and tourism growth coming from emerging economies in Asia-Pacific, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Discussion on… Henley Passport Index

The latest Henley Passport Index puts Japan and Singapore in joint first place, with their citizens enjoying visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 189 destinations. Both countries gained access to Uzbekistan earlier in 2018, knocking Germany off the top spot.

South Korea shares third place with six European Union (EU) member states: Sweden, Finland, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and France. And Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Portugal share fourth place with the United States and the United Kingdom.

According to Professor Dr. Florian Trauner, Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels, EU member states, including the UK, are unlikely to see their passport power improving while their own inbound travel policies remain restrictive.

“The current political climate in the EU is not conducive to more liberal admission policies,” says Trauner. “In the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK has been trying to install a stricter immigration regime vis-à-vis both EU and non-EU citizens.

“The EU, similarly, has sought to strengthen its external border control in reaction to the ongoing refugee crisis. Softening visa requirements may be perceived as being lenient on immigration. In addition, EU member states have significant political reservations regarding the processing of the three remaining candidates for EU visa liberalization: Kosovo, Turkey, and Russia.”

The Henley Passport Index is based on exclusive data received from IATA.  

Open Borders… IATA’s Open Borders Strategy has four main components:

  1. Review visa requirements and removing unnecessary travel restrictions. The solution to overly restrictive, expensive, and inefficient visa regimes lies in unlocking the potential of shared information in a trusted framework.
  2. Include travel facilitation as part of bilateral and regional trade negotiations. Restrictive visa requirements are non-tariff barriers to trade and should be addressed in trade discussions.
  3. Link registered-traveler programs. When registered-traveler programs are linked, as is the case between Canada and the United States, the efficiencies grow.
  4. Use Advance Passenger Information (API) data more effectively. As governments have information in advance of boarding, inadmissible passengers should be notified before their journey begins, and arrival procedures should be streamlined for passengers whose data has been vetted in advance.

    “Over the next 20 years, the number of passengers will double,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

    “That’s excellent news for the global economy, as air connectivity is a catalyst for job creation and GDP growth. But we will not get the maximum social and economic benefits from this growth if barriers to travel are not addressed and processes streamlined.”

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA Director General and CEO

“I would like to imagine a future for aviation where airlines are as free as possible to meet the demands for connectivity”


Gloria Guevara, President and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council

“Uncertainty around processing times can… discourage travel to destinations that have unfriendly visa processes”


Nick Careen

Nick Careen, IATA Senior Vice President, Airport, Cargo, Passenger and Security.

“Importantly, this is not about questioning a government’s right to determine who enters their country”


Simple step

Overall, the number of travelers requiring traditional visas continues to drop, albeit slowly. UNWTO data shows that destinations are making special efforts to facilitate visa formalities for tourists originating from those fast-growing outbound markets, China and India.

China gained visa-free access to Belarus and visa-on-arrival access to Zimbabwe in June 2018, for example, and recently had its visa-waiver agreement with the British Virgin Islands come into effect.

Data from UNWTO and the China National Tourism Association suggests Chinese citizens made 120 million trips—and spent $215 billion—abroad in 2017, which makes China the largest tourism market in the world.

And China is increasingly committed to inbound tourism too. It recently opened Hainan province to nationals of 59 countries who cannot easily access other parts of the country.

Professor Kate Coddington, Assistant Professor of Geography at Durham University, says this move “is expected to attract significantly increased Japanese and Russian tourism to China.” More broadly, she notes, “the increasing push to brand Hainan as China’s Hawaii through a focus on beach tourism as well as other newly authorized activities such as horse racing, sports lotteries, and duty-free shopping not only provides an incentive for Chinese tourists to keep their spending within China but also targets investment to a province suffering from budgetary issues.”

Encouraging the freedom to travel is a simple step that promises huge strides in economic benefits. UNWTO research suggests the rewards for progressive visa strategies will be plain to see. Some $89 billion in tourism receipts and 2.6 million jobs would be created in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation countries through the reduction of barriers to travel. The ASEAN community would benefit to the tune of $12 billion and 650,000 extra jobs and G20 economies would get $206 billion from additional international tourism and 5 million extra jobs.

“While millions of travelers cross borders each year without the need for a paper visa, many millions more still find their journeys restricted by complicated application processes and paperwork,” says Guevera. “We’ve seen much progress on this front however, with ever greater levels of cooperation between countries and the introduction of simpler, quicker, and cheaper processes often aided by new identification technologies. Our research shows the benefits that secure visa facilitation regulations can bring to a country in terms of promoting travel and tourism and driving job growth.”

Determining entry

IATA has launched an Open Border initiative, part of which deals with removing unnecessary visa restrictions. “Importantly, this is not about questioning a government’s right to determine who enters their country,” says Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Airport, Cargo, Passenger and Security.

“Rather, for those that can enter, visa data should be handled electronically, and that data should be linked to such other systems in the travel process as check-in and boarding.”

Too often, airline data sent in advance has not been used sufficiently to reduce immigration queues, as illustrated by the United Kingdom in summer 2018.

Traditional visa processes should thus be moved to eVisa, visa on arrival or no visa at all. In fact, data is being collected under UN resolutions 2178 and 2396 and many countries are embracing the advantages of the digital transformation.

Following on from the success of similar schemes in Australia, Canada, and the United States, the European Union has adopted a new European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), which in essence allows the EU to know who is entering the region and if they pose a security risk.

ETIAS will cost €7—though the under-18s and over-70s will get it for free—and is due to come into operation in 2021. All visa-exempt third-country nationals who plan to travel to the Schengen area will have to apply for pre-travel authorization.

Though the main reason for ETIAS is security, it is anticipated that authorization will also reduce procedures and reinforce the visa liberalization policy of the EU. Guevera sees this as an important first step in the digitization of travel. “The ultimate aim will be the use of biometric technology to ensure seamless, more efficient and more secure travel,” she concludes.

Discussion on… Seamless travel

The number of travelers will exceed 7 billion within the next 20 years. During that time, most of the world’s major airports will need upgrades to keep pace but development timelines and funding scarcity makes that outcome unlikely.

The solution to this capacity problem therefore lies in more efficient processing. International travel needs to be made easier.

“We are seeing that many governments are very interested in moving their visa systems to be more online and integrated with other systems,” says Gloria Guevara, President and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

“Simultaneously, we have seen countries set deadlines or mandates to implement biometric systems in international arrivals and departures. Implementation 
of biometrics systems will significantly improve the passenger experience and reduce visa requirements.”

Travel facilitation and increased security through the use of technology is one of WTTC’s top priorities and it has recently partnered with IATA to further this initiative. The two organizations will adopt a common approach, exchange information, and work together to promote biometrics standards and global interoperability.

“Last year, one of every five jobs created in the world were in our sector,” says Guevera. “If we don’t use biometrics technology to improve the processes, we are not going to be able to achieve the potential of travel and tourism. Millions of jobs are at stake, so this is a priority for WTTC and our members.”

Ideally, travelers will no longer have to repeatedly present travel documents, boarding passes, and booking confirmations to multiple stakeholders at different stages of the journey. Instead, they will be able to book transportation, request a visa, check-in, proceed through security, cross borders, board aircraft, collect baggage, rent a car, check in and out of hotels, and access myriad destination services simply by confirming their identity and booking data.

Notes Guevera: “WTTC and IATA have partnered to work on improving the passenger experience and strengthen the voice of our industry by including the entire sector. While IATA’s One ID project focuses on the passenger, WTTC will expand work to include the traveler, bringing in hotels, cruise, car rental and other industry segments to achieve an end-to-end seamless journey. The more the benefits of digitization and integration can be demonstrated and quantified, the stronger the case governments can make to find the resources to implement such changes.”

WTTC has already engaged with G20 governments on this issue. Its research concludes that between 7 and 19 million jobs can be created in these countries if biometrics are used to increase capacity and improve the traveler experience.